Friday, August 11, 2017

That new Arcade Fire album

Okay, so yes: Arcade Fire's new album, "Everything Now," is their least impressive outing in 13 years of being unparalleled indie-rock darlings. In 2004, when "Funeral" turned Pitchfork and much of the indie-admiring world weak-kneed, I'd been in Seattle (and working for Seattle Weekly) for a couple of years and was becoming aware that a few lucky indie bands, whether several albums in or after a single release, blow up. This was, after all, the year of Modest Mouse's "Good News for People Who Love Bad News" (their fourth album), whose massive smash single "Float On" elevated them to indie royalty (for a few crazy years). That same year, Franz Ferdinand's self-titled debut exploded, too. And, oh yeah, the Killers' "Hot Fuss." Holy crap was 2004 busy for indie fans. And "Funeral" added a powerful measure of dreamy, almost otherworldly storytelling and sound that was also, somehow, profoundly moving and relevant and ridiculously millennial. Album of the 2000s, and maybe of the young century thus far, thou art "Funeral."

In 2007, Arcade Fire somehow surmounted the unbelievable pressure of following up "Funeral" by releasing "Neon Bible," which was darker, satirized religion, and consisted almost entirely of irresistibly escalating, triumphal anthems (or anti-anthems, in the case of the haunting "My Body is a Cage" and "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations"). I was at the Seattle Times by then, and I still remember the version of "Neon Bible" I listened to obsessively in my trusty Discman. The track listing was markedly different from what ended up being the final, official one. "Intervention" started that alternatively ordered album, and it still seems much more appropriate than "Black Mirror" (second on that disc) as an opening track. Anyway, I fell madly in love with the gorgeous, doomy "Neon Bible," and though I will probably find, as I revisit "Funeral" now, that it's at least as strong as its predecessors, on some level Arcade Fire's sophomore set may forever be my favorite album of theirs.

"The Suburbs," in 2010, leaked out to me track by track via YouTube. "Rococo" struck me as pure, beautiful Arcade Fire bombast, a heavy, rolling destroyer of a song that more or less kicked off the band's ongoing reflection -- sometimes pretentious, sometimes self-lacerating, occasionally both -- on fame itself, and what it's like to be The Most Important Band Ever all of a sudden. "The Suburbs" won the album of the year Grammy, and it is indeed a lovely, ambitious project. As a suburban kid, and especially as one who spent most of his first 10 years in a classic American suburb (Warren, Michigan), I do think a lot of this quasi-concept album captures vital things about suburban life, including the sadness and isolation that can persist despite everyone's houses being built so damn close to each other. Parts of "The Suburbs" still grab me, but as a whole it didn't hit me as hard as the band's first two records.

"Reflektor" came out in 2013, right around the time Liz and I bought our house. I took immediately to "Joan of Arc" and "Normal Person," both of which riffed memorably on the notion that being a nonconformist misfit sucks, but the only thing worse is being a rigidly conventional, boring bully. (Basically: the plot of "Carrie," minus the firestorm.) "Afterlife" served as a lovely climax near the end of the album's dance-y, angst-y arc, and I loved the use of rhythms and sounds of Haiti (co-lead signer Regine Chassagne's ancestral homeland, which the band name-checked with a song title on "Funeral") throughout the record -- especially on "Here Comes the Night Time." After the big concept and epic sprawl of "The Suburbs," "Reflektor" couldn't help but feel like a more minor album. Still, the work and care that went into it was evident, and it had plenty of that Arcade Fire ache -- the emotional charge, the yearning, the thrilling interplay between sadness and joy.

"Everything Now" has some of it, too, but not nearly as much. Think of it as an extended EP: "Everything Now," "Creature Comfort," "Electric Blue," "Put Your Money On Me," and "We Don't Deserve Love," and you're pretty much good to go. Even critics who've ragged on the record as a whole admit that "Creature Comfort" has some of that old-time Arcade Fire magic, what with the "everybody sings at once!" wall-of-sound moments and the lyrics about body dysmorphia, low self-esteem, and suicidality. (The midsong reference to "Funeral" that so many critics found annoying strikes me as a fair poke, on the part of the band, at their debut album's long shadow and vaunted reputation as the emotional expression of an entire generation's collective angst.)

However, it's "Put Your Money On Me" and "We Don't Deserve Love" I keep coming back to. Sure, "Money" has a mix of great and dodgy lyrics ("Above the chloroform sky"? Sure! "Clouds made of ambien"? Yeah, not so much). Then there's this breathtaking run:
I know I've been different
My skin keeps shedding
My mother was crying on the day of our wedding
Trumpets of angels call for my head
But I fight through the ether and I quit when I'm dead
Oh, man. The song builds and builds and by the end the harmonies are ethereal, and yet somehow it still sounds like 21st-century ABBA. It's a mesmerizing, beautiful song. It sticks in my head.

"We Don't Deserve Love" works similarly, though it's musically pretty different. Here's where the lyrics really take off:
Mary roll away the stone
The men that you love
Always leave you alone
Go on Mary
Roll away the stone
The men you love always leave you alone
You hear your mother screaming
You hear your daddy shouting
You try to figure it out
You never figured it out
Your mother screaming that
You don't deserve love
The very band that skewered evangelical Christianity on "Neon Bible" has taken the age-old story of a mourning Mary and lifted it up movingly in its own unique style. Lead singer Win Butler's voice has always been highly expressive, but here his prolonged falsetto feels unusually vulnerable. Critics we'll never see the likes of "Funeral" again from Arcade Fire, and I understand the disappointment that surrounds their release of a decidedly nonessential record.

But the spark hasn't died out completely. From 2004 to 2013, the band's albums met me at what now seem like crucial points in my life. It's okay that many of these new songs falter. After producing so much music that's filled with passionate but ambiguous feelings and surprising, creative stories and ideas, these guys deserve some grace. And hey, three new songs that stand up to repeat listening are definitely better than none.

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